Fat Books & Thin Women

Books That Scare the Bejeezus Out of Me
April 19, 2011, 9:33 am
Filed under: meme | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these Top 10 Tuesdays from The Broke and the Bookish, but this week they’re letting you pick any of the topics from their past weeks. Awesome, because I’m picky and a control freak and this degree of choice allows me to feel I have some control over a world which has infested my home with mice that resist my best efforts to kill them and have forced me to sleep in a different room to escape the sound of their nighttime mouse parties, which are starting earlier and earlier. (Clearly they are not scared of me, not even slightly.)

My choice for this week? The ten books that intimidate me most. Writing this brings up some interesting questions about how and why we allow books to scare us, and why we read books that scare us – there’s value in it, but where does it come from? – but I’ll save the philosophizing for another day, and today just give you the list.

  1. Gravity’s Rainbow – I’ve read a couple other books by Pynchon (Vineland and Lot 49Vineland is, by the way, a terrible choice). There are elements to his books that I love, like the names and the songs, but all his characters read like cardboard cutouts – like they are interchangeable and meant to be that way. Also, one of my professors told this story about the first time he tried reading Gravity’s Rainbow. He hated the book so much that he duct taped around the entire book before throwing it out, so that no one would ever have to suffer through what he had. He reread it eventually and loved it, but I am not quite convinced that I will.
  2. Infinite Jest – I’ve already read Infinite Jest so maybe it’s a stretch to put it on this list, but I didn’t get it the first time I read it and I’m terrified that when I reread it I’m going to not get it again. DFW is one of my favorite authors, and I want to be able to understand this work, not just his essays and short stories. But what if I can’t?
  3. Ulysses – I halfway believe that Joyce is one of those authors everyone claims to admire but no one ever reads, or when they do read they don’t understand him but claim they do. I haven’t even read Portrait, so the thought of Ulysses has me going “oh my god oh my god oh my god.” When I don’t understand a book I usually react by turning against it and declaiming against everyone who finds something worthwhile in the work. If you see me protesting against Ulysses on this blog in a couple years, you can be pretty sure that I tried reading it and didn’t succeed.
  4. House of Leaves – After reading a review of this at Sasha & the Silverfish I thought, “huh, I better read this one day,” but knowing that “one day” would be pretty far off – not till I get back to the states at least – I didn’t feel too intimidated by the book. Only then I found a copy of it in the Peace Corps office here, and I had to take it – what was I supposed to do? – and now it’s been sitting on my shelf for a couple months and I’m too scared to even open the book let alone read it. I’m calling it my summer reading project now, but just the thought of it makes me want to curl up in a little ball and read nothing but murder mysteries the rest of my time here in Macedonia. I’ve been on a good streak with the mysteries lately. Why mess that up with a book like this?
  5. Pale Fire – As with Infinite Jest, I’ve read Pale Fire before. Vladimir Nabokov is my favorite author. And as with Infinite Jest, those are the reasons I’m so scared of Pale Fire: having read it once before, what are the odds that I’ll read it again and understand it? Isn’t it sort of lame to claim an author as one of my favorites if I haven’t even managed to understand one of his best works? But this is the sort of reading that I’m reluctant to admit I fall prey to. I should read what I read, think what I think, and not worry what other people think, but I can’t escape this vague fear that one day I’ll go on a date with a guy who has read, loved and understood Pale Fire and treats me like a fool because I didn’t. Still, I’ll be tackling this with the help of Brian Boyd’s critical work on Pale Fire when I finish with Peace Corps. We’ll see how this goes.
  6. 2666 – I enjoyed Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, but that doesn’t mean I understood it. Which means, of course, that I now approach 2666 with some trepidation. My copy is currently sitting in a storage facility somewhere in NJ, but when I get home I’m going to have to read it… This may be the time to seek out a good book group, right?
  7. In Search of Lost Time – When I started this blog I was a little more prone to going on jaunts about time and memory and how they worked in books. I’m more used to the idea of “reviewing” books now than treating them as something to analyze, college-style (I think, I hope), but my interest in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time grows out of my interest in how time and memory work in literature. As with so many other books on this list, the first three volumes of In Search of Lost Time are sitting in a box somewhere in NJ, hanging over me like the sword of Damocles. I’m anticipating that my “readjustment” period from Peace Corps is going to include a couple months living with my parents, paying daily visits to the gym and reading these books I’ve been intending to read for years, but knowing that Proust’s works are among them is enough to make me think I’m better off forgetting the readjustment period and moving straight to New York, finding a full-time job, and never reading again.
  8. Charles Dickens – Dickens doesn’t intimidate me in the same way that some of the other authors and works on this list do. I’m sure that if I take the time to read Dickens I’ll understand his work and maybe even like it. What I’m worried about, though, is that I’m never going to get to that point – that his verbosity will turn me off, as it has for so many years past. I’m planning to read some Dickens for the upcoming author showdown at the Classics Circuit, to maybe get me over this hump – but for now, Dickens remains a victim of my desire to like an author being so strong that I never read him, for fear that I won’t.
  9. War & Peace – I loved Anna Karenina. Do you sense a theme here? Can you see where this is going? But…. having liked that book so much, I’m scared I won’t like this one. Anna Karenina wasn’t always easy going, and I vaguely remember a couple months stuck on a hundred pages or so, falling asleep every time I tried reading it. Whether I end up enjoying War & Peace or no, I know it’s sometimes going to be a hard slog, it’s going to put me to sleep, it’s going to break my back as I carry it all over town (to the gym and back home, according to my post-Peace Corps plans). Right now I want to read books that are fun, and the thought of reading to better myself in some way is intimidating, to say the least.
  10. Dostoevsky, pretty much the complete works – I have this bad habit of building a collection of an intimidating author’s work, despite never having read a word by him, so I have a good collection of Dostoevsky’s writing back home. The last time I tried reading him I was in about the seventh grade, with a signet classics edition of Crime & Punishment. I think I read 70 pages, and ever since then I’ve been studiously avoiding the man, while pointing to my bookshelf and saying, “But see? I’m going to read him one day.” Of course, I’m now 25 years old and better acquainted with Russian names (things like the -ski/-ska endings now make a lot more sense to me, given that I live in a country where most of the names end like that and sound identical to the untrained ear) and have better translations of his works.

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Nabokov in general intimidates me. I’ve tried and failed twice to read Lolita, and failed once at Pale Fire. I have no idea why. As for the Proust, I don’t think it’s that intimidating. Of course, I haven’t read the whole thing, but the bits I have read are slow and rambling and kind of nice.

As for the mouse, of COURSE it’s not scared of you. It’s used to bears and other wild Macedonian creatures (okay, I know nothing about the wildlife of Macedonia) and since you smell so much better, it must think that you’re a friendly host. :]

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

i should find it encouraging that you aren’t intimidated by proust, but somehow that scares me more. i think i read the first sentence of “swann’s way”…i think…but now all i can think of when i think of proust is lorelai gilmore trying to return max medina’s copy of the book and saying that the first sentence is like 14 pages long. i think i’m intimidated in large because i know that when i start “in search of lost time” i’m going to be in it for the long haul – it’s not going to be a read that lasts a week.

it’s funny that apart from “pale fire” i’m not intimidated by nabokov. I guess I used to be, but then i started reading him and fell in love and stopped being scared by him, with this one exception.

and the collage is the result of some solid cutting & pasting in mspaint. i wish i could say something more impressive, but my photo editing skills…uh, maybe i shouldn’t refer to them as “skills.”

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

There you go again with Lorelai! Must say she put me off Proust with that too (cos I wasn’t, you know, put off before that!). The trouble is that I’m way older than you and I still haven’t read it and I know it would be a GOOD thing to do.

Comment by whisperinggums

haha, i can never let a chance to reference lorelai gilmore pass me by.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

PS. I love your collage! I may steal that idea if I can figure out how you did it.

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

I also picked this topic for Top Ten Rewind, and also put War and Peace (duh), House of Leaves, 2666, and Ulysses on there.

I did get about 100 pages into House of Leaves about two years ago, and it’s good…but takes so much time and energy. I will one day complete it.

Great list!

Comment by Emily @ Eat the Books!

Yes, those are some intimidating books indeed. I have a copy of Savage Detectives which I thought I should start with before I tackle 2666. *gah* scary.

Dostoevsky isn’t so bad, though. I enjoyed Crime and Punishment last year and have been looking out for some of his others to try. Brothers K, perhaps?

Comment by Trish

That’s a great list. Ulysses intimidates me too. I have it sitting there and sometimes I can feel it’s presence taunting me. I read Dubliners. I liked some of the stories in there but not enough to make me want to get over my Ulysses block.

I read House of Leaves because I was looking for a scary book and a friend recommended it. It’s extremely creepy and well worth reading.

I love Charles Dickens. I recommend starting with the Christmas Carol. Most people who have read Dickens seem to love this one. Or Great Expectations, it’s one of my favourites. Despite that Tale of Two Cities intimidates me.

Comment by Karen

whew, i’m glad to hear you read and liked house of leaves – i have the feeling that if i can get over my fear of it i may end up liking it. as for dickens, i’ve actually read “tale of two cities,” and really enjoyed it. that’s where i started and ended, though.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

That is one scary list … but I ditto Karen re Dickens. He’s not at all scary. Sure he’s wordy but, boy, so are most of those writers you’ve chosen. And Dickens can have a lot of humour as well. But, don’t start with a Christmas Carol! Go for the big guns, like, say. Bleak House. Great read. (Great expectations was, for a long time, the book I loved to hate, until I finally read it properly a few years ago after several failed attempts in the past. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Comment by whisperinggums

seems to be a direct correlation between length and my degree of fear. did i include a single short work on this list?

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great list! I’m with you on the scariness of these books. Seems like I can manage to read the shorter works by a lot of these authors (Dubliners by Joyce and Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky), love them, yet still be intimidated by their bigger, more famous works.

The only one on this list that I’ve actually read was Pale Fire in an undergrad class, and absolutely hated it. I read and enjoyed Lolita, but just couldn’t ‘get’ Pale Fire…and that’s with having a professor’s guidance. That was so long ago that maybe I should give it another chance like you mentioned.

Comment by Jenna

I read Pale Fire in a college course too, a seminar I did on Nabokov. I get, in theory, some of the things Nabokov is doing (because I’ve read essays on it) but I have a hard time connecting those ideas to the book itself. There are some things Nabokov does in PF that are just fantastic, like the poem – have you noticed that most authors, when they’re writing about a writer, never quote that supposed writer’s work? It’s because it’s hard, nearly impossible I guess, to write convincingly as another writer, to produce work with whatever qualities that writer’s writing is supposed to have. Nabokov goes ahead and writes the poem. I admire him for that but…again…still don’t understand the book. I mean, I wrote my thesis on the man and carefully filed PF away and didn’t open it once the year I spent researching & writing it.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I couldn’t get through House of Leaves. All of the asides and footnotes and the footnotes to the footnotes just blew my poor little mind to pieces.

My annotation-phobia has also scared me away from Infinite Jest even though I’m sure I’d really like DFW.

Comment by ohemgillie

that’s what freaks me out about house of leaves. i’m okay with DFW-style footnotes and endnotes, which at least tend to be easy to find, but just looking at house of leaves makes my head feel like it’s gonna explode. The only major problem with IJ, in terms of endnotes, is that…they’re endnotes rather than footnotes, and the font is SO small. For my reread I think I’m half scared I won’t understand the book (again) and half scared of how much those endnotes are going to make my eyes hurt (again).

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I agree with every single one of your selections. I haven’t read any of the books you mentioned, nor have I read any Dickens. I also consider Gravity’s Rainbow the most intimidating work.

Comment by Brenna

Great list! totally understandable, Swanns Way is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to try it again too. Everyone keeps telling me its worth it, I hope to eventually conquer it.

Comment by commonreader

Thanks for stopping by!

Yes, your list is indeed intimidating. I’ve heard Dickens was paid per word, so I guess we can’t blame him for being incredibly wordy. LOL

I’m subscribed to your blog now!

Comment by Dorothy @ The Kindled Scholar

Great topic and great commentary! Personally, I don’t admire Joyce and I loathed Ulysses. He’s currently on reading probation and it will be a long time until I read any of his other works.

I actually DID enjoy War and Peace!

Comment by Two Bibliomaniacs

ha, I’m glad that you went ahead and put him on probation then. I’m going to read Portrait soon, but I suspect it’ll be years before I try Ulysses.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I still love that anecdote about your professor and Gravity’s Rainbow. Hilarious!

I can vouch for House of Leaves’ awesomeness. It’s actually not as difficult as some of the other books on your list – it’s just a little less, um, conventional.

I’ve pretty much crossed Ulysses off my list. Gravity’s Rainbow was enough literary masochism for an entire lifetime!

Pale Fire is a novel I need to read again – I first read it in a Lit Survey in college and don’t remember a thing about it, except the unreliable narrator, and that it was very, very weird.

And I’m reading Anna Karenina now, which is awesome. It’s sort of my way to gear myself up for War and Peace, which is next.

Comment by Greg Zimmerman

I love Anna K, I’m debating whether to reread it or head straight into War & Peace when I get home. I’ll probably do the reread…though at some point I should probably give in and admit to myself that when I get back to the states I’ll be devoting myself to celebrity gossip mags, not great works of literature.

Ulysses is probably a good book for me to never read, unless I stumble into a reading group that’s focusing on it. I’m not usually big on group discussions of books, but in this case there’s probably no other way I’ll either finish the book or have a shot at understanding it.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’ve read War and Peace and I found Tolstoy very readable. Avoided all the others though. I tend to read only women novelists so that’s my excuse!

Comment by Nicola

Most things on your list would make mine – definitely War & Peace, Ulysses and just about everything Dostoevsky ever wrote.

Comment by 1girl2manybooks

House of Leaves is such a great book. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like it but within the first few pages I was hooked. I think what I loved most about it was the way that it was constructed–the book makes you feel as if you are actually descending a spiral staircase or that you are actually crawling through a space that is ever-decreasing in size. Great use of text and an altogether wild ride of a book.

Comment by Gabriel James

You make this sound a lot more appealing to me. First time I looked at it I wasn’t considering the beauty of its construction – more staring at it, thinking, “oh god, I am never going to know what order to read all these chunks of text in.” Summer reading it is.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

That is a pretty scary list. Except for Dostoyevsky-he’s my bestie. Gravity’s Rainbow? Not so much. I do like Dickens, although he can be sentimental. But his books are far from intimidating…they are just really, really long…

Comment by Lisa Almeda Sumner

My list would look, pretty much, just like this. I’ve read Danielewski, and I don’t think there is much to be scared of there. I’ve also read most of Ulysses. I’m totally scared of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Here is my list

Comment by Laura

I LOVE Crime and Punishment. And I loved Anna Karenina and only liked War and Peace. Not intimidating though — just very much too long…

Comment by Rebecca Reid

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